Immigrants who come into the country illegally, or refugees who apply for political asylum, often go into detention, some for many months. Before 9/11, about 100,000 detainees went though the system each year. Today, with stricter immigration rules, that number has tripled to more than 300,000.
The surge appears to have overwhelmed the medical care provided to the immigrants.
Now, a investigation, joined by 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley, has found evidence that immigrants are suffering from neglect and some don't survive detention in America.
In 2004, United Nations troops were fighting militant gangs in the streets of Haiti. Eighty-one-year-old Reverend Joseph Dantica, a Baptist minister, saw his church ransacked during the unrest, so he fled to the United States and asked for political asylum. His niece, Edwidge Danticat (her last name is spelled differently than her uncle's) says he was taken straight to a U.S. immigration detention center.
"He was essentially arrested?" Pelley asks.
"Yes. I consider it an arrest," Danticat says. "Because …he had to ask for special relief for him not to be handcuffed. And they did allow him that, but told him that if he ran, they would shoot him."
Rev. Dantica raised Edwidge in Haiti; she moved to the U.S. at the age of 12 and grew up to become a prize-winning author. Danticat's recent book, "Brother, I'm Dying," recounts her uncle's ordeal.
She was waiting for him in Miami.
Asked what she was thinking when she heard her uncle had been detained, Danticat tells Pelley, "Well, I was horrified. Eighty one years old and, after the ordeal that he had been through in Haiti, I worried about his ability to handle that."
Records show that two days later, during an asylum hearing, he became violently ill and collapsed. A detention center physician's assistant failed to recognize that Dantica was in serious trouble.
"Help me understand from the records that you've seen precisely what the medic said about your uncle and his condition," Pelley asks.
"It appears that he said, 'I think he's faking,' or something to that effect," Danticat says.
It took four hours to get Rev. Dantica to an outside hospital. His family wasn't allowed to see him. In a day and a half, Rev. Dantica was dead. The medical examiner said it was pancreatitis.
Asked what she was thinking in that moment, Danticat says, "Just a series of things."
Crying, she continues, "Of course, you know, a great deal of sadness because he died so alone."
"He died without his family," Pelley remarks.
"Yeah. And after being treated like an animal," Danticat says. "Someone who was just trying to escape horrible things, who was so old and sick. Just had to die that way."
But in one sense, Rev. Dantica was not alone: he's among hundreds of sick or dying detainees inside 22 detention centers, plus some 350 state and local jails. The federal lock-ups range from a former warehouse in New Jersey that houses 325 people, to a desert facility near the Mexican border.
The centers are run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known by its initials "ICE."
Inside the detention centers, medical care is provided by another federal agency, the Division of Immigration Health Services, or DIHS. Reporters Dana Priest and Amy Goldstein of The Washington Post have been investigating DIHS.
"This is not just some deaths or just some sick people anecdotally. If you take them all together, they show poor medical judgments, faulty administrative practices, sloppy paperwork, lost medical records and very dangerous staffing levels," Priest explains.
Priest, who contributes to 60 Minutes, and Goldstein have obtained thousands of internal DIHS documents. They include investigations, e-mails, autopsy reports and complaints.
What sort of a picture did the documents paint of how DIHS is working?
"They show a bureaucracy that offers many immigrants no care or slow care or poor care," Priest says. "And they also show that the employees inside are panicked about this."